Sunday 17 December 2017

Tommy Conlon: Choreographers must call right moves away from the fury

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice

Tommy Conlon

The atmosphere in the crowd will be thunderous, and the physical output by players on the pitch utterly exhausting. But this All-Ireland football final will also be steered quietly, and maybe decisively, by the cerebral input of Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Jim Gavin. For if there's no doubting that the two best teams in the country have made it to the endgame, this is equally a meeting of minds between the two best managers.

Neither of them has shown the remotest inclination to harness the prestige of their position for ego expansion. They have both been studiously modest in their public personae. And they will both insist that it's ultimately all about the players.

But it's not all about the players; they know themselves that it is about the managers too. The preparation, the selection, the match-ups and the in-game manoeuvres are absolutely critical to the outcome. The players have to perform on the day; the managers have to perform on the day too. And they also have to perform every other day that they're running the show. All of that prior work is up for inspection today, as is their decision-making while the match unfolds.

In short, there is an enormous amount of responsibility weighing on Fitzmaurice and Gavin. It's no different, one might say, to any other team leader. But the exceptional calibre of the Kerry and Dublin managers only heightens the sense that they are central figures in this afternoon's proceedings. If the players are the dancers, these are the all-powerful choreographers.

This match therefore is nothing less than a diplomatic summit between two discreet but formidable strategists. Like one of those adversarial summits between heads of state where everyone is on their best behaviour while plotting furiously behind closed doors.

On the sideline it will be cordial and impersonal between them. But they each know how good the other is and either of them would take a great deal of personal satisfaction from winning this private duel.

When Fitzmaurice announced his team on Thursday evening, it rippled with tremors. Marc Ó Sé - gone; Paul Murphy - gone; Kieran Donaghy - gone. But one imagines that the tremors were felt nowhere more acutely than in Jim Gavin's head. Fitzmaurice had made the first public move in this delicately hostile tête à tête.

The unspoken sentence in the communiqué from Kerry was more or less: over to you now, Jim. Pick the bones out of that. And Gavin undoubtedly set about trying to decode this despatch from the enemy camp immediately. What's he thinking? What are the specific match-ups here? And is it a ruse of some sort?

On Friday evening Gavin countered by playing with a straight bat, selecting his team along anticipated lines. He gave away little with this move on the board, maintaining that inscrutable public demeanour while paddling diligently beneath the surface.

And after that, the retreat behind closed doors, the 48-hour lull before the teams converge in battle dress on Croke Park. Both managers will have been fretting over the logistics, the mood in the camp and all those sundry details in the itinerary that will bring them to 3.30 this afternoon.

At which point, we will soon see the fruits of their labour in action. The Cluxton kick-out, to take one obvious example. The presumption is that Kerry will try to sabotage it at source. If they do, Fitzmaurice will have drilled the practice into them over and over on the training ground. Having taught the lesson, he can now only study the outcome.

And further down the sideline, mere yards away, Gavin will be studying it with equal concern. He won't be surprised to see Kerry's forwards hounding his backs as Cluxton launches his re-starts. So what to do? How will Gavin counter this strategy?

Maybe they will rely on Cluxton's ingenuity in these situations. Maybe they just hope he'll be quicker on the draw than those Kerry forwards scrambling to close down the free man.

But, assuming that the Dublin manager leaves little to hope, one imagines he will have his half-forward line primed to flood midfield should his goalkeeper have to go long. The goalkeeper will have lines of communication, various signals, for connecting with the likes of Flynn and Connolly on kick-out ball.

One way or another, just as Kerry will aim to neutralise Cluxton, Dublin will surely aim to neutralise Kerry's imposing midfield combination. Curbing the influence of Maher and Moran, on the ground as well as in the air, will remain an abiding priority.

Fitzmaurice is well aware too that his Dublin counterpart will have studied Kerry's defence - and that Gavin fancies some vulnerability there. So the recall of Fitzgerald and O'Mahony to the Kerry back line seems like a pre-emptive strike. In addition, the Kerry half-forward line will spend a lot of time augmenting that defence, shoring up gaps, and fouling the runners if they have to.

If Cluxton is to be attacked at all costs, their defence has to be protected at all costs too. And so the tactical cat-and-mouse between managers will continue all afternoon, amid the sound and fury of the action inside the white lines.

Personally I'm finding it nigh impossible to call. But, 20 quid at the bookies? The Kingdom's full-forward line to swing it: not just by stopping Cluxton, but by him failing to stop them. Kerry by a goal.

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